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Natalie Merchant

The focal point with detached folk-rock outfit 10,000 MANIACS since 1981, vegetarian “Whirling Dervish” NATALIE MERCHANT (born October 26, 1963, Jamestown, New York) embarked on a solo career in 1993. Over that decade or so her literate works and distinctive vocals with the aforementioned band had made them one of the most popular alt-rockers in the biz.
Spending over a year in the studio, MERCHANT returned in fine style with her self-produced debut album TIGERLILY (1995) {*8}, an emotive and eclectic collection of songs including opener `San Andreas Fault’ that stayed high in the American charts for some time. Three singles were lifted from it; `Carnival’, `Wonder’ and `Jealousy’, all stirring up enough support for a Top 30 placing; B-side covers included The ROLLING STONES’ `Sympathy For The Devil’, JONI MITCHELL’s `All I Want’ and a medley of The RONETTES’ `Baby I Love You’ with the DUSTY SPRINGFIELD hit `Son Of A Preacher Man’.
Follow-up effort OPHELIA (1998) {*5} was more oblique and impenetrable, a thing of nocturnal beauty enhanced by the likes of Zairean guitarist Lokua Kanza and Tibetan devotional singer Yungchen Lihamo. Strikingly different to the wonderful performance MERCHANT put in on that year’s WOODY GUTHRIE tribute set `Mermaid Avenue’, the record made the US Top 10, but – perhaps unsurprisingly given its introspective depths – failed to make the critical or commercial impact of its predecessor.
LIVE IN CONCERT (1999) {*6} was made up largely of material from her debut, while Natalie took on a couple of covers via BOWIE’s `Space Oddity’, NEIL YOUNG’s `After The Gold Rush’ and a past memory of her 10,000 MANIACS repertoire `Dust Bowl’. A completely different tack came via her gritty teamwork with producer T-Bone Burnett on the Top 30 MOTHERLAND (2001) {*7}, a more solid album with arrangements that played to her vocal strengths. Taking an Eastern approach on the likes of `This House Is On Fire’ and the title track, acoustic folk songs such as `Tell Yourself’, `I’m Not Gonna Beg’ and `The Ballad Of Henry Darger’ (think SANDY DENNY) had indeed returned to her roots.
Taking these positive vibes, MERCHANT again surprised, confounded and delighted her fanbase in equal measures by way of 2003’s self-financed THE HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER {*7}. While long-time fans – especially those who’d purchased her previous set and the aforementioned `Mermaid Avenue’ – shouldn’t have been too shocked to find the singer doing an album of full-blown folk covers, the arrangements allowed breathing space for her rock roots. It was still a thrill to hear those distinctive, doleful tones carry the weight of traditional compositions like `Weeping Pilgrim’, `Sally Ann’ and `Poor Wayfaring Stranger’, as well as covers of The CARTER FAMILY’s `Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow’ and star here: FAIRPORT CONVENTION’s `Crazy Man Michael’ – the true weeper here.
Just as the tide was a-flowing (so to speak), her career took a hiatus when she married Malaga-based photographer Daniel de la Calle in 2003; they had a child Lucia, a child that certainly inspired her next project, the long-awaited “lullaby-esque” double album LEAVE YOUR SLEEP (2010) {*7}. Not many childhood concept albums of this ilk will have crossed over into the mainstream (at least chart-wise), but Natalie’s powerful though poetic portrayals of anonymous nursery rhymes and sourced material from bygone ages, produced her most satisfying release to date. Yes, and it was folk music again.
Turning 50 it was time to resume her songwriting attributes by finally following up Motherland. Her eponymous NATALIE MERCHANT (2014) {*7} set distanced her from the folk market she’d embraced with previous outings, only the poignant `Go Down, Moses’ (which referenced Hurricane Katrina) worked towards her roots. At times augmented by an orchestra, sadly not 10,000 of them, Natalie leant towards torch-soul (on `Ladybird’) and Laurel Canyon (for `Maggie Said’); her dramatic organic vocals haunting and always precious.
Marking 20 years since her solo debut, Natalie thought it appropriate time to update it by unveiling PARADISE IS THERE: THE NEW TIGERLILY RECORDINGS (2015) {*6}. Augmented by her session band and an orchestra, her haunting performances here are stripped to bare-bone, some re-arranged pieces garnished by guests Gail Ann Dorsey, Elizabeth Mitchell and Simi Stone; buyers with extra cash could afford the accompanying DVD soundtrack.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Nov2015

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